AURORA – Kaneland overcame a late push by the Illinois Math and Science Academy to defeat the Titans 53-42 on Feb. 26 during its opening game at the Class 3A Aurora Central Catholic Regional.
Seniors Blake Feiza and Rhett Espe combined for 23 points to lead the Knights. Espe added four rebounds, four steals and two assists, and Feiza grabbed a team-best eight rebounds.
“We kind of let up off the gas pedal,” Espe said. “They made their run, and we didn’t respond too well. We had to go back in and finish it out.”
The Knights (12-18) led by 25 points during the third quarter. However, IMSA made it a seven-point game with less than two minutes left following a 3-pointer by sophomore Femi Duodola.
Kaneland coach Joe Conroy said he wanted to use different lineups because of his team’s large lead and added that he wanted to give his starters extra rest ahead of their next game. Often, Conroy substituted five players at a time.
He admitted that decision came back to bite the Knights toward the end of the game.
“We knew IMSA’s kids weren’t going to give up,” Conroy said. “They’re character kids who never go away. I wanted to try and put different groups out on the floor, I don’t know if I did the best job. … I probably should’ve done it a little slower.
“I don’t want to grind four, five guys down an entire game. I thought it was good for us to see what the other guys could do and we some some good things, and we saw some not so good things. We saw that out of everybody.”
IMSA coach Brad Snead said he was disappointed with how his team struggled to finish at the basket and at the free-throw line. The Titans went 3 of 10 from the stripe.
“Being from IMSA, we’re definitely almost always the underdog coming in ” Snead said. “But our kids fought hard and they didn’t give up.”
Matthew Gombar led IMSA with a game-high 19 points. The Elburn native attended Kaneland as a freshman before transferring to IMSA at the beginning of his sophomore year.
Gombar, who played with Grant Heimerdinger, Matt Olson, Feiza and Espe in middle school and during his freshman season at Kaneland, was IMSA’s lone senior starter. Snead applauded Gombar’s performance, saying he went out with a bang.
“The game was kind of set up for him to have a good game because it was against his old buddies,” Snead said. “He had a terrific game, but we just couldn’t get over that hump at the end.”
Gombar said he put everything on the line against his former team.
“I was just trying to get us a playoff win,” Gombar said. “We just kept chipping back. We knew we could make it a close game at the end.”
“I hoped I was going to have a big game against my old team. It was a cool moment when it was actually happening. It was a hard decision for me to make [going to IMSA], but I think I made the best choice for my future.”